New York: Chautauqua Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historic District and National Historic Landmark is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 750-acre enclosed educational institution and residential community was built on the site of an old Methodist camp meeting. The residential and public buildings are in a variety of styles ranging from Victorian to Art Deco.

Site Office

Chautauqua Institution

P.O. Box 28

One Ames Avenue

Chautauqua, NY 14722

ph.: (800) 836-2787; (716) 357-6200

fax: (716) 357-6369

Web site: www.chautauqua-inst.org

Tucked into the southwestern corner of New York State lies an institution that President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly described as being “typical of America at its best.” For more than a century, the Chautauqua Institution has been a popular, influential, and eclectic center of learning, culture, and recreation. Its summer programs in the fine and performing arts, philosophy, religion, current events, sports, and other disciplines have long attracted national and international audiences to hear the words and works of noted instructors and performers. Providing the backdrop for this unique educational oasis is a charming turn-of-the-century community in an idyllic setting along the shores of Chautauqua Lake.

Today, the Chautauqua Institution continues its tradition of rich and varied programs, annually welcoming more than 180,000 visitors to its nine-week seasonal schedule of performances, classes, and special events. The 750-acre enclosed complex, bounded by fencing and the lake shore, also serves as home to 7,500 permanent residents.

Architecture

Architecturally, Chautauqua features a mixture of residential and public buildings interspersed among parks and informal open spaces, with many buildings constructed along narrow, automobile-free, tree-lined streets. Its Victorian era charm has been well preserved, earning the institution designations as a National Historic District and a National Historic Landmark, as well as a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chautauqua’s closely spaced turn-of-the-century residences–affectionately referred to as “cottages”–are mostly two-story frame houses with pastel gingerbread appointments. These and other vintage structural elements can also be found proudly displayed at the Athenaeum Hotel, a sprawling architectural grand dame known for its high ceilings, wide verandas, and wicker outdoor furniture.

Chautauqua’s public buildings, constructed mostly between the 1870’s and the 1920’s, are primarily brick and stone structures that reflect a wide variety of styles. At Chautauqua’s cultural and geographic center is the 5,500-seat amphitheater, built in 1893 and still home to many of the institution’s performances and special events. Other public structures of note are the Italian-style Miller Bell Tower, which was built in 1911 and still chimes every quarter hour; the art deco Norton Memorial Hall, built in 1929, one of Chautauqua’s more “modern” structures; and the Hall of Philosophy, built in 1903, an open-air auditorium that serves as the site of many of Chautauqua’s lectures.

Early History

The history of Chautauqua is as rich and diverse as its programs and architecture. Founded in 1874 as a summer training assembly for Sunday school teachers, Chautauqua quickly evolved into an institution with a broader scope and agenda. To a certain degree, this evolution occurred because conditions at the time made such growth favorable. To an even greater degree, however, the institution’s expansion and development resulted from the vision of its two founders, Lewis Miller and the Reverend John Heyl Vincent. To understand how Chautauqua came to be what it is today, one needs some background on the impact of these influences.

In the years following the Civil War, the United States was at a turning point in its development as a nation. With the war over and westward settlement nearly complete, the nation was leaving behind its nearly hundred-year-old childhood and adolescence, heading at last into young adulthood. Many Americans had finally moved beyond their preoccupation with simply “putting down roots.” Indeed, these once-fragile roots had begun to take hold and grow as the nation’s onetime-frontier communities began evolving into established population centers.

Because people no longer had to worry as much about mere day-to-day survival, they had more free time. As a result, their thoughts and attention began turning to other matters. Particularly important was a new hunger for knowledge. Likewise, there was a growing desire for entertainment and recreation. Developed as the nation was becoming, however, its educational system and entertainment outlets had not kept pace. So the question became, how were these needs to be fulfilled?

The Chautauqua Movement

A newfound interest in the nation’s spiritual institutions was also beginning to develop. The horrors of the Civil War caused many to seek refuge in the stability offered by religion. This development, in turn, prompted increased interest in religious education. As with secular education, however, inadequate structures were in place to address this need. Thus a push for Sunday school reform began sweeping the nation.

It is in the light of these conditions that one must examine the impact of Miller and Vincent in their establishment of Chautauqua. Their innovative ideas not only helped to address America’s new needs but also led to the birth and growth of their beloved institution.

Lewis Miller was a successful inventor, manufacturer, and businessman from Akron, Ohio. He was also a devoutly religious man. He served as superintendent of the Sunday school program of his hometown parish, the First Methodist Church of Akron, and even designed its Sunday school building. In addition, Miller was a trustee of the Chautauqua Camp Meeting Association, which sponsored a popular religious revival each summer at Fair Point, New York, a Methodist campground on the shore of Chautauqua Lake and later the site of the Chautauqua Institution.

John Heyl Vincent was a young, zealous Methodist minister who had a strong aptitude for teaching, even at an early age. During his initial postings, he began to incorporate some experimental and unorthodox approaches in his Bible study and Sunday school classes. For instance, Vincent used maps to provide a geographical context to sites of important biblical history, and he also sometimes conducted his classes in relaxed outdoor settings.

These methods, unusual though they were, quickly became popular and garnered the attention of church leaders, who appointed Vincent general agent of the Methodist Sunday School Union. Upon assuming his new post, however, Vincent discovered that there was an inadequate number of knowledgeable, properly trained instructors available to fill all the vacant Sunday school teacher slots. To fill these vacancies and help promote uniform instruction, Vincent envisioned the development of a standardized approach to training Sunday school teachers, a method similar to those used for training public school teachers. Soon local institutes for Sunday school teacher training began springing up, but Vincent saw them as limited in duration and scope. He believed there had to be a better way.

The plans for a better way began taking shape when Miller and Vincent finally met. Miller enthusiastically embraced Vincent’s ideas, and the two set out to put them into practice. First, there was a desire to overcome the inherent shortcomings of the local institutes by conducting training for a more extended period at a centralized location. To help make this plan more attractive to would-be participants, Miller proposed using one of the innovations Vincent employed in his early classes–that of holding the event in a relaxed, natural setting. With that in mind, the duo set out to find a suitable location.

Miller’s affiliation with the Chautauqua Camp Meeting Association provided an established connection to a suitable site. So it was that Fair Point was selected as the meeting location. The first Sunday School Teachers’ Assembly was held in 1874, and Chautauqua was thus on its way to being born.

Selection of Chautauqua’s Site

Prior to the first assembly, Vincent was admittedly reluctant about Miller’s site suggestion. Vincent took a more scholarly approach to religion than was practiced in the camp meetings of the time. Specifically, he objected to the extreme emotionalism that characterized such events. He did not want the influences of a camp meeting intruding upon his training assembly, and he was concerned that people might unwittingly come to associate his program with an event that he so strongly disliked. By giving the program a different name and an agenda significantly different than one would find at a camp meeting, Vincent and Miller believed they could adequately differentiate their event.

Perhaps the main difference between the assembly and a camp meeting was the content of the program. Miller and Vincent clearly established the assembly as an outlet for Sunday school teacher training and not as a religious revival. More than that, the duo proposed distinguishing the assembly by incorporating programs that covered more than just theological issues. Specifically, Miller and Vincent sought to include recreational activities and secular educational programs. While these influences were not readily apparent in the first assembly, they were added in subsequent years and quickly became an integral part of the summer program.

In part, Miller and Vincent decided to include recreation and secular education as attendance incentives; after all, such programming helped meet the nation’s growing demand for these activities. Moreover, Miller and Vincent’s decision reflected an important view they both held dearly: that instruction in worldly topics and activities necessarily had to coexist with religious education programming. It is because of this outlook that Chautauqua evolved into the institution it later became.

Early Success

The success of the first assembly launched Miller’s and Vincent’s brainchild into a period of explosive growth even they had not anticipated. To help sustain their fledgling institution, Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent charged a gate fee to visitors entering the enclosed Fair Point compound, a practice that remains in effect to this day. The fee did not appear to hinder attendance. Thanks to an ever-expanding schedule of educational and recreational programs–made possible by the funding provided by the gate fee–Chautauqua quickly became a vacation destination for thousands. Whether they traveled over land or by steamboat up the twenty-two-mile-long Chautauqua Lake, they came in droves to take part in the Chautauqua experience.

In 1877, the community of Fair Point legally changed its name to Chautauqua. In the years that immediately followed, the community embarked upon a major expansion program that would earn Chautauqua a reputation as an institution synonymous with the concepts of educational enrichment, enlightenment, and tolerance. In fact, over the next quarter century, what had begun as a twelve-day training program conducted under canvas tents would expand into a full-fledged, eight-week summer school offering more than two hundred courses taught in a variety of permanent buildings. Individuals who subscribed to this way of life and learning came to be known as “Chautauquans,” regardless of whether they resided in or even visited the upstate New York facility. In short, Chautauqua had become a truly American phenomenon.

The first courses added at Chautauqua covered topics related to the program’s original curriculum, such as biblical history, biblical geography, and Hebrew. By 1879, five years after the first assembly, courses in secular topics were added, such as languages and public education. Not long thereafter, additional courses were developed in history, music, and science.

As Chautauqua’s reputation spread, so did its impact on American education. Some of this impact resulted from programs whose reach extended beyond the institution’s grounds. The most notable of these was the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), established in 1878. This reading and discussion group was established to provide members with a well-rounded education in a broad variety of topics. Its four-year program, complete with examinations and the chance to earn a diploma, made the CLSC a sort of “everyday college,” as Vincent once termed it.

Spread of the Movement

What set the CLSC apart most from other programs was that it was not confined to the institution’s grounds. Rather, reading groups under the CLSC aegis were established in communities across the country. With an initial enrollment of 8,400–far in excess of Vincent’s expectations–the CLSC quickly grew, and within twenty years, there were nearly ten thousand groups in existence throughout the United States and Canada.

The success of the CLSC prompted the development of similar programs, such as a series of correspondence courses. These courses were dropped in 1900, however, as colleges and universities, drawing upon the Chautauqua model, began developing similar programs, usurping the role Chautauqua once played in this form of education.

Not all of Chautauqua’s programs involved education. As a popular vacation destination, it developed extensive recreational activities. With its lakeside location, Chautauqua was an ideal spot for boating, fishing, and swimming. Other diversions included croquet, lawn tennis, and cycling. By 1886, interest in physical education had grown so strong that a school devoted to it was established. The most popular sport at Chautauqua in the 1880’s and 1890’s was that new American pastime, baseball. Chautauqua’s contingent in this endeavor was captained by a young Yale University divinity student who would one day gain renown in the sports world, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Indeed, famous people were becoming commonplace at Chautauqua. Well-known and respected speakers began flocking to Chautauqua to present lectures on various topics. Initially these lecturers came primarily from religious quarters, but soon Chautauqua was attracting educators from great American universities, famed authors, noted scientists, social reformers, and political leaders. Even Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Theodore Roosevelt could not resist the draw of Chautauqua.

Expansion of Facilities

As Chautauqua’s programs grew and expanded, so did its need for facilities. In 1879, the first amphitheater and hall of philosophy were dedicated; these structures were later replaced by newer facilities (in 1893 and 1903, respectively) that bore the same names and still stand today. Two years later, the Athenaeum Hotel, considered by one author “comparable to the best summer resort hotels of the day,” opened for guests. This was followed in 1886 by the Pier Building, which welcomed visitors arriving by boat–for years as often as every hour–until its replacement by a newer structure in 1916. Various educational halls followed, as did the CLSC Alumni Hall, opened in 1891.

Permanent residences began springing up, too. The old camp meeting tents were quickly replaced by clapboard cottages. Down by the waterfront, the cottages took on somewhat more lavish form, described by one author as “sprawling summer homes with landscaped lawns.” Some of these homes were owned by famed industrialists of the era, such as Henry Heinz and Clement Studebaker. With the coming of these more permanent residences, Chautauqua began to develop its own modern infrastructure, including electric lights, paved walkways, a water works, and modern sanitation.

In any successful endeavor, imitators are sure to follow, and Chautauqua was no exception. Within a few years of the assembly’s founding, traveling and permanently settled “chautauquas” began springing up around the country. The imitators genuinely seemed to be establishing their programs more out of emulation and respect for the original institution than as a means to profit from its innovations. In fact, many of the imitators sought and received the advice and assistance of Miller, Vincent, and their growing team of colleagues. However, Chautauqua maintained no official relationship with these upstart entities, other than some CLSC chapter affiliations.

Why did the new chautauquas arise? In large part, they came about as the result of the difficulty of travel at the time. Although transportation had improved markedly by the 1880’s and 1890’s, travel was still difficult, and Chautauqua’s somewhat remote location did not make the pilgrimage any easier. Thus the new chautauquas arose to help fulfill the education and entertainment needs of those unable to make the journey to upstate New York.

New Locations

Some of the new chautauquas had permanent locations, such as Winona Lake, Indiana; Bay View, Michigan; Lakeside, Ohio; and Boulder, Colorado. By the turn of the century, between one hundred fifty and three hundred such institutions had been established. However, as one historian wrote, establishing a permanent chautauqua required “initiative, vision and capital,” and few communities had all three at their disposal. For this reason traveling chautauquas evolved to help bring education and entertainment to communities that otherwise could not afford them.

Few of the imitators enjoyed the success, notoriety, and influence of the original institution, which some came to affectionately call the Mother Chautauqua. Many imitators flourished well into the 1920’s, but over time most faded from the scene, with only a few left by the 1940’s.

As the United States headed into the twentieth century, the nation’s world view began to enlarge. Such events as the Spanish-American War, the U.S. annexation of Hawaii, and the Klondike gold rush caused Americans to turn their attention toward matters other than themselves. Meanwhile, social reform movements at home, such as those involving women, labor, and juveniles, gave Americans challenges to face in their own backyard.

The Movement in the Twentieth Century

In light of all these new developments, the time had come for Chautauqua–which had successfully developed a reputation for addressing what was on the cutting edge of the American mind–to respond. It did so by sponsoring programs that covered these topics and featured noted speakers. In 1902, for example, Chautauqua presented a week-long program on social settlement issues, highlighted by an address given by Jane Addams. Similarly, in 1907, Chautauqua hosted a conference on social unrest. True to the Chautauqua tradition of promoting tolerance, the conference featured presentations by both old-line conservatives and Socialists.

Interest in world affairs grew markedly with the onset of World War I, and Chautauqua again responded. Neutrality and preparedness were frequent lecture topics, as evidenced in an address given by a young assistant secretary of the navy named Franklin D. Roosevelt. The institution’s bookstore was also fully stocked with publications addressing the new overseas crisis.

Although current events have continued to this day as an important part of Chautauqua’s programming, the end of the war freed Chautauqua to refocus its attention on subjects for which it had become best known. One area that benefited greatly during this period was musical programming.

Music and New Programs

Music had been a part of Chautauqua’s curriculum from nearly the beginning, but it experienced some of its greatest advancements during the 1920’s. In 1920 and 1923, for example, the New York Symphony presented concert series that extended throughout much of the Chautauqua summer season. In 1926, the Rochester Opera Theater presented a repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and other works. In 1929, the institution established the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Opera, both of which still perform today.

The 1920’s saw other developments, too, such as an aggressive building program. In 1924, Chautauqua marked the opening of Smith-Wilkes Hall, the Hall of Missions, and a summer school dormitory. In 1929, the art deco Norton Memorial Hall was opened as the site of many of Chautauqua’s musical and theatrical performances.

By 1932, the nation’s economic realities had caught up with Chautauqua. The Great Depression was having its impact. Crowds began to decrease, and by the close of the 1933 season, it was unclear whether there would be a 1934 season. The massive debt that Chautauqua had taken on to finance its construction program, coupled with declining revenues from visitor attendance, left Chautauqua financially strapped. So the institution went into receivership.

Rejuvenation During the Great Depression

In 1934, there was renewed hope for Chautauqua. The Chautauqua Reorganization Corporation was established to raise funds to clear the institution of its debt of $800,000. Friends and followers rallied to the cause, launching a sweeping “Save Chautauqua” campaign that helped the institution become financially sound by 1936. A year later, the Chautauqua Foundation was established to ensure the institution’s perpetuation and to avoid the financial troubles of the past.

In later decades Chautauqua continued the traditions it established during its founding years. The crowds still come to hear the lectures, attend the concerts, and take advantage of the many recreational opportunities. It also continues its world affairs programming, having sponsored a series of five widely heralded conferences on U.S.-Soviet relations during the 1980’s. Of particular note was a 1987 conference that brought two hundred Soviet families to Chautauqua to live with American families for a week.

Chautauqua may not be a typical American resort, but for those who relish the past, seek diversity, and continue to adhere to Reverend Vincent’s belief that “education ends only with life,” this uniquely American institution is without equal.

For Further Information
  • Campen, Richard N. Chautauqua Impressions: Architecture and Ambience. Reprint. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: S. W. Campen, 1997.
  • Gould, Joseph Edward. The Chautauqua Movement: An Episode in the Continuing American Revolution. New York: State University of New York, 1961.
  • Irwin, Alfreda L. Three Taps of the Gavel: The Chautauqua Story. 3d ed. Chautauqua, N.Y.: Chautauqua Institution, 1987.
  • Kostyal, K. M. “An Enduring Tradition.” National Geographic Traveler, May/June, 1993. An exploration of present-day Chautauqua.
  • Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion and the Arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
  • Noffsinger, John S. Correspondence Schools, Lyceums, Chautauquas. New York: Macmillan, 1926. Examines the history, content, and impact of these three American educational movements. A clear but brief history of the “traditional” Chautauqua facility is presented, along with discussions on such “modern” alternatives as the CLSC and the traveling chautauquas.
  • Orchard, Hugh A. Fifty Years of Chautauqua. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press, 1923. Provides a detailed history of the Chautauqua imitators that arose in the years following the original institution’s founding. The opening chapter provides a clear, concise history of the New York State facility’s establishment, while subsequent chapters provide comparable accounts of the namesake entities that arose in Chautauqua’s wake.
  • Richmond, Rebecca. Chautauqua: An American Place. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943. A comprehensive history of the Chautauqua Institution up to the time it was written. Although occasionally flowery in its tone and lacking in its presentation of certain facts, the book nevertheless provides a thorough treatment of the subject.
  • Simpson, Jeffrey. Chautauqua: An American Utopia. New York: Harry N. Abrams/Chautauqua Institution, 1999. A history of Chautauqua Institution.
  • Vincent, Reverend John Heyl. The Chautauqua Movement. Boston: Chautauqua Press, 1886. Includes an introduction by Lewis Miller. Libraries with comprehensive historical collections may contain this work written by Chautauqua’s founders. Features an account of Chautauqua’s early days in the words of those innovators who started it all.
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